Out This Week
The Big Short (Paramount, cert 15)
What is a mortgage backed security, a sub-prime loan or a credit default swap? At an early stage in this hugely entertaining film about the financial crash of 2007, Ryan Gosling’s voiceover admits it’s confusing and exclaims, “so here’s Margot Robbie in a bubble bath to explain…” Cut to Margot Robbie up to her neck in suds, cradling a glass of champagne … “Whenever you hear the word ‘sub-prime’,” she tells us, “think ‘shit’…”. That’s The Big Short in a headline, a film unafraid to put on the brakes, wheel out a celebrity and roll out a colourful analogy – the chef Anthony Bourdain later explains Collateralized Debt Obligation (rolling up lots of bad debts with some good ones) in terms of turning old fish into new fish stew, for example.
Truth be told, the story without the celebrity endorsements might be a little indigestible. Though it is hellishly fascinating – a number of disparate traders realising the financial markets are overcooked, and that the agencies responsible for sounding the alarm aren’t doing their job, decide that the housing market is going to crash and bet that it will. Christian Bale is key figure Michael Burry, the almost autistically asocial trader first coming up with the idea of the big short – much to his boss’s horror – Ryan Gosling’s Jared Vennett arriving later as a smart cookie realising Burry is on to something and co-opting disaffected trader Mark Baum (Steve Carell) into helping him. Meanwhile, out in hicksville, wannabe masters of the universe Charlie Geller (John Magaro) and Jamie Shipley (Finn Wittrock) persuade old hand Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt) to give them an in after they accidentally find details of Burry’s big short idea on a tossed-away piece of paper – the action stopping here as the young guys explain to camera that it didn’t actually happen this way, but hey… that’s entertainment.
Co-writer/director Adam McKay’s background in comedy (Anchorman, The Other Guys) stands him in good stead here, and he’s clearly decided that he’s going to do whatever he has to do to get this story across – cue Steve Carell explaining what a sub-prime mortgage is to a lapdancer at full grind. Or a financial deal discussed in terms of making a sundae – sprinkles and cherries and nuts all being what you get, what I get and so on. It’s the most good time, good fun film about the big crash bar none, though Margin Call does, admittedly, run it fairly close.
Creed (Warner, cert 12)
When Sylvester Stallone made Rocky Balboa in 2006 he was about 60. That was 10 years ago and there was a certain, “I can’t believe he’s doing it at his age” aspect to watching Stallone climb back into the ring and go even a single round with men decades younger and fitter. If Stallone is anything it’s smart, and he knows that at nudging 70 there’s no way he can throw those shapes again.
But he can give us another boxing movie, with another young contender and with himself as the trainer, and that’s what he’s done. It’s a long and unhurried affair, aiming for the full 12 rounds rather than a quick knockout, and once it’s got its uncomfortable meet-cutes out of the way – juvie Adonis Creed, son of Apollo, former world champ and one of Rocky’s most respected opponents, hooking up with restaurateur, retired champ and all-round good guy Balboa – it moves assuredly through its boxing-movie set pieces.
The cast is good, Michael B Jordan as Adonis Creed is not in the business of hogging the limelight (clever producer Stallone, hiring him), and Tessa Thompson as his musician girlfriend a very likeable tough, smart presence, as she was in Dear White People. Most eye-opening is Tony Bellew as the Liverpool fighter Creed has to defeat to bag the title – Bellew is a boxer in real life and, it turns out, a fantastic actor who injects Scouse vinegar into his character’s ball of pugilistic spite. School of hard knocks, see.
Ryan Coogler shoots the fights handheld and up close, and they’re outstandingly choreographed, brutal, bestial affairs. And he saves the Rocky theme for exactly the moment it’s meant to come, very very late in the day, knowing its emotional effect at that point will be magnified. Tears in the eyes.
The Assassin (StudioCanal, cert 12)
The British Film Institute’s serious film magazine Sight & Sound named The Assassin as its film of 2015 (full top 20 here) and its director Hou Hsiao-Hsien was also named best director at Cannes last year. So here’s a film garlanded in expectation, but what exactly does it offer?
At the level of story it’s about a beautiful assassin (Shu Qi) in 8th century China going about her work – or failing to, since in early scenes we see her aborting a kill on a despot governor because he is playing with his child. She takes pity. Bad girl, admonishes her tartar trainer, also a female, unusually, and a nun. I’m not sure the story is really what this film is about, though. In early expository scenes set at the governor’s court, there is the feeling that we’re wandering into A Man for All Seasons as reshot by Zhang Yimou, whose obsessive colour-coded style Hou seems to have in his sights. This is perhaps more Hou’s Crouching Tiger wuxia epic – though the fight scenes, glorious enough, are incredibly brief, so be warned if that’s your thing.
Instead this is a film for aesthetes, Hou loading up every scene with imagery so lush that even Peter Greenaway, master of the static tableau, might take pause. Then, doing something strange in the circumstances, Hou shoots his epic sets and his vivid, detailed setups with an almost documentary camera, and very often through gauze, curtains, from behind trees, with a very shallow focus and lighting that casts pools of shadows. When he shoots outdoors, his camera is cusping on over-exposure, and frequently shots slip into deliberate defocus so things start to blur.
It’s a strange, hypnotic film, and the visual style and set design call to mind Chinese epics of the 1950s. However, full pastiche it isn’t – Hou’s camera is too fluid, his compositions too 21st century. But never mind all that, is the film any good? And what is it really all about? Those questions I cannot answer. Deep symbolism is at work, and my knowledge of the precise meaning of pomegranates (for example) is lacking. More homework required. And a second viewing, if not many more. But hey, isn’t that Dirty Grandpa?
In a Lonely Place (Criterion, cert 12)
Criterion’s recent entry into the UK legacy home entertainment market means we’re getting more of this sort of thing, a nicely restored Blu-ray of Nicholas Ray’s 1950 drama. It’s an interesting film rather than a great one (sorry, Ray cultists), one of the first to deal with celebrity culture at any level, and one of the first in which a star works his own persona for effect.
The star is Humphrey Bogart, at first the familiar Bogie from Casablanca, a sour white knight who, we’re sure, is going to come good when the chips are down. He’s a Hollywood screenwriter as wholesome as yellow snow who’s called on at short notice to write a treatment of a book he’s never read. Luckily, the hatcheck girl in the club he’s in has read the book. And she’s a bright breathy button only too keen to go home with the famous man, to help out, you understand, and she’s got a boyfriend, he just ought to know.
In short order the girl is dead (this happens early on, no spoiler) and Bogie is being fingered by the cops. But his sexy next door neighbour (Gloria Grahame, director Ray’s wife at the time) can vouch for him – she saw him seeing Hatcheck off the premises, and is sure it was him, because she saw him looking up at her in her negligee. Negligee – woo hoo. So, did he or didn’t he? The film toys with that notion, with Bogie’s persona, with Grahame’s motivation (is she also hooked on his Hollywood celebrity?). Notions of the real and the bogus run right through the entire film – of honest people and Hollywood people, of guilt and innocence – with Grahame’s overdrawn lips and push-up bra suggestively perfect in this context.
If Bogie is the only person in the film who can really act, Grahame comes close at moments, and scenes set down in the cop shop are stiff in the special way they tended to be back then. The film didn’t cost a hill of beans to make and the restoration has probably got as much detail as possible out of negatives that might never have been exposed properly in the first place – down at the black end, gradations of shade are a tiny bit suspect. These noirish thrillers were knocked out by technically competent crews who were often working at speed – good enough was good enough. What the restoration does give us is detail – look at how thick the material in the men’s suits is. Hair, too, is noteworthy, not always particularly kempt. If I’m overdoing the technical side it’s because I’m not entirely convinced by the “classic” status of the film, but then I’ve never been a worshipper at the shrine of Nicholas Ray. Johnny Guitar? Camp waxworks. Give me Max Ophüls any day.
Battle for Sevastopol (Arrow, cert 15)
A Soviet… whoops… Russian Second World War drama with a misleading title, it being a biopic about real-life sniper Lyudmilla Pavlichenko rather than a film about the Battle for Sevastopol, though Sevastopol certainly turns up and Pavlichenko was certainly involved. Prefaced by all sorts of imprimaturs – “sponsored by the Ministry of Culture of the Russian Federation”… “the Russian Military Historical Society”… “the Ukrainian State Film Agency”… the film actually then goes on to tell the rather personal story of a beautiful woman who happened to be a crack shot. Her life, her loves, and how her celebrity as “Lady Death” took her to the USA in the early 1940s, where she met Eleanor Roosevelt. The two formed quite a bond. Mrs Roosevelt recurs – the film starts in 1957 with Mrs R as a private citizen visiting the USSR, then zips back to Lyudmilla’s childhood in the 1930s, before moving forward to the 1942 US visit, then back to Pavlichenko training, then forward again into the actual heat of the battle for Sevastopol, after the Nazis had invaded Russia in 1941.
Most of what we see on screen actually happened (usual Wikipedia caveats apply), and unusually for one of these historical epics, the action doesn’t take place against a backdrop (or frontdrop) of a raging romance – though Pavlichenko has lovers, several in fact, the happy-ever-afters aren’t a given. Again interestingly for a Sunday afternoon movie – definition: you can fall asleep for half an hour and your enjoyment won’t be diminished – the film doesn’t flinch from the fact that killing people is horrible.
It’s beautifully made – the production design is aiming for Technicolor sparkliness and Yuriy Korol’s cinematography is similarly exquisite, while Yuliya Pereseid, as Pavlichenko, heads a uniformly excellent cast. A touch of committee writing, a slight lack of poetry here and there? Maybe, but Battle for Sevastopol has plenty of flavour and is a lot better than most war films out of Hollywood.
Mojave (Signature, cert 15)
Not being a fan of William Monahan’s writing – he’s verbose and showy (see The Departed) – I was slightly surprised when his directing debut, London Boulevard, turned out to be kind of OK. It was a London geezer movie and the American Monahan brought a welcome outsider’s viewpoint to a very tired Brit cliché. So… Mojave… what’s it to be – fresh eye or same old same old? It’s the latter, I’m afraid, a wannabe wiseass existential thriller sending Garrett Hedlund’s disillusioned Hollywood actor out into the desert, where he meets Oscar Isaac’s dangerous loquacious bum.
Hedlund is essentially playing Jesus and Isaac the Devil – and the screenplay says as much – and it does indeed feel as if 40 days and nights have passed until we get to a point of resolution. Though there’s no real resolution at all, Monahan believing he’s waxing profound on the nature of celebrity, with the desert as some sort of metaphor for the soul of the Hollywood player.
But, hey, isn’t Hedlund handsome? And Isaac, isn’t he doing a Dennis Hopper in Apocalypse Now thing? All very appropriate, because when Monahan isn’t writing long speeches in the “all words, no plot” style mastered by Tarantino, he’s reaching back to the 1970s, to Scorsese and Coppola and all that lot. Looking back at my notes, I can see there were things I did like… Mark Wahlberg as a greedy, coke-fuelled sex addict Hollywood agent, Walton Goggins doing a laconic Jack Nicholson routine rather well, and Isaac was actually rather good, too, sticking it to the kind of tic-driven Method style of acting that allows the big beasts of acting to wrest creative control from the director. A conversation for another time…
Bottom line – this film lacks good original ideas and it isn’t stylish enough to fill in the gaps where those ideas should be.
The Propaganda Game (Metrodome, cert 15)
We’ve all seen the documentary where the film-maker doesn’t get what he wants, and turns his film into the search for just that thing – Michael Moore’s 1989 Roger & Me being the classic of a style also perfected by Nick Broomfield.
The Propaganda Game sees Spanish documentarian Alvaro Longoria heading to North Korea in an attempt to find out the truth about the place. He doesn’t get it, though what he does get is fascinating enough. That Longoria got to go at all is down to the fact that he was sponsored by fellow Spaniard Alejandro Cao de Benos, a full-time resident of North Korea who dresses in full military attire and is so enthusiastic about the regime that he’ll break into patriotic song given half a chance. He’s an almost permanent presence as Longoria is conducted about the country, being shown carefully edited highlights proving that North Korea isn’t “mad, bad and silly” – its characterisation in western media.
At five days in, having visited the border, talked to people on the streets, eaten “socialist hamburgers”, dropped in at a gleaming swimming pool and visited fine modern apartments full of tech gear, Longoria is almost convinced. Then he heads off to visit a Christian church – because freedom of worship is one of the things Westerners believe is verboten in North Korea – and the wheels slightly come off the pram. The church is real but the believers inside are, he believes, shills. His evidence? Scant. Who’s going to talk? On the other hand, Longoria tells us he saw no evidence of the black market that the entire country is meant to run on. And as anyone who’s ever been to a socialist country will tell you, you don’t find the black marketeers, they find you. So this is significant.
Frustratingly, how Longoria decides to fill the gaps where his other revelations should be, is with commentary by western journalists, and vox pops from North Koreans, neither saying much we don’t already know. And his attempt to turn the “propaganda game” being played by both sides into the subject of his film doesn’t stack up either.
However, if there is one valuable contribution this film makes to international understanding, it’s to explain the continued existence of North Korea at all – for China it’s a handy Communist buffer state; for the US it’s a justification for interfering in the region; for Japan it’s a way of preventing competition from a united country modelled on successful South Korea. The only people who want North Korea to collapse, it seems, is everyday North Koreans.
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© Steve Morrissey 2016